The Premier League returns this weekend, and Manchester United will once again open their campaign at Old Trafford. Even with the struggles of the last decade or so their opening day match has usually gone well, but this season they open the year against an opponent who properly embarrassed the Red Devils in their last meeting.
Brighton smashed United 4-0 on the south coast near the end of last season, adding another low to a season that would look like the stonks crashing meme if we charted the vibes. It came near the end of a Ralf Rangnick regime that went so poorly the club didn’t even want to keep him around the office anymore, and really cemented the desperation for the end to finally come and give the fans at least a couple months of peace before we all come back and do it over again.
Now that we’re back, the Reds will kick off their campaign with a chance at redemption in week 1 against Graham Potter’s side.
The Athletic’s Andy Naylor, a longtime Brighton reporter, predicts this as their regular starting XI barring anymore transfers:
“Robert Sanchez; Joel Veltman, Lewis Dunk, Adam Webster; Tariq Lamptey, Alexis MacAllister, Moises Caicedo, Marc Cucurella; Enock Mwepu, Leandro Trossard; Danny Welbeck.”
That would look something like this:
It seems as though Cucurella will indeed be joining a new club by the weekend, so expect March in his place.
The side are good at pressing opposition, which could be a problem again for United considering the lack of a real midfield upgrade. Playing out and moving the ball forward is something they’ve looked good at in the preseason under Erik ten Hag, but the big “It’s just preseason” asterisk carries quite a bit of weight. Brighton might have confidence given the success they had last time out, and if they can cause United problems early and often you can expect them to feed off of that. They have a decent record away from home and they developed a reputation for playing up against Big 6 opposition.
They defend well, can be compact if they need to, and when they get forward they do so with speed and like to cause chaos. The formation transforms into more of a 3-2-5 with the wing backs joining the attackers and causing trouble for opposing full backs. This was especially effective against Alex Telles last time out against United, so hopefully United have less trouble with the more trustworthy Luke Shaw or Tyrell Malacia in his place.
One thing that may be costly for the Seagulls is the exit of some key players. Potter has already lost Yves Bissouma to Tottenham this summer, and could soon lose Marc Cucurella to either Chelsea or City. Bissouma’s job at the center of the park was crucial in allowing the side to play freely on the wings and overload opposition in wide areas. While Moises Caicedo has looked like a promising option in a similar role, it’s expected that their midfield play could drop off this season.
The same could be said of Cucurella. He has only been in England for one campaign, but he was so impactful on the left wing last season, including in the 4-0 over United. The system likely won’t change, but there could be a less effective option in place if a deal for the wing back comes before Sunday. If he’s gone by kickoff, or the club don’t want to risk their £50m asset, it’s probably going to be Solly March in his place. March is capable and experienced in the role, even if he’s not as threatening as Cucurella, and the way they play won’t change much.
In conclusion: Brighton are likely going to go through some pains in replacing key contributors, but their system is still a tried and tested one that has kept them in the Premier League longer than many expected. If they do roll over it’s probably only because it’s opening day in a hostile environment, and that’s certainly not a given. United will need to be focused from the start. Arguably the only real takeaway from the 4-0 was that they weren’t focused and were simply a squad ready to put the season behind them, and they certainly can’t afford to start that way.
Manchester United and the start of a new era
It’s hard to say at this point what exactly things will look like in a competitive match from United. A lot of questions left unanswered in midfield going into the start of the season, but it would seem that Christian Eriksen is going to potentially play in a pivot. He and Fred could be a useful duo in terms of moving the ball forward and aiding in attacking possession. If they get caught out however, Brighton could swarm.
A front three of Marcus Rashford-Anthony Martial-Jadon Sancho is expected, as well as attacking roles for the full-backs with Shaw or Malacia on the left and Diogo Dalot on the right. They’ve looked pretty good ********in preseason***** at playing fluidly and creating/finishing off good chances, and it seems unlikely that there are many other options to take their places anyway. Obviously the team that went to Oslo to play against Atletico Madrid last weekend are the favorites to walk out to The Stone Roses at Old Trafford on Sunday, but given fitness and training time together it seems like Lisandro Martinez and Christian Eriksen are possibilities to start soon, even if they don’t take the field on opening day.
This XI is probably the best ten Hag has at the moment. It’s lacking in several areas, notably midfield and depth/choice at basically every other position. Jadon Sancho is reportedly back from illness, but an injury in training to Martial seems as though it will keep him from playing on Sunday.
Notably, no big Champions League clubs have come calling for the services of Cristiano Ronaldo just yet, and his petulance was finally called out by the new manager, who said his and others leaving the friendly match before the final whistle was “unacceptable.” Either way, things aren’t looking promising in regards to his potential contributions to the team. Ronaldo could be an option off the bench, but it seems pretty clear for fitness, tactical, and disciplinary reasons that ten Hag doesn’t intend to use him much in the first few matches.
A likely option to replace Martial is to bring in Elanga and play either him or Rashford up top. Garnacho also a possibility to come in on the left with Rashford at striker.
Erik ten Hag won’t get to play the sort of football he wants to play from day 1, but that’s part of the challenge of the job. He needs to find something his players now and in the future can buy into, and get the current players to fight to prove their worth going forward.
Manchester United 3-1 Brighton & Hove Albion
It feels like Manchester United are a safe bet on opening day at Old Trafford. In the last five years they’ve smashed West Ham, Chelsea, and Leeds on opening days, as well as a win over Leicester, and the only loss happening against Crystal Palace at the start of the strange Covid delayed season. Brighton are a threat, but there isn’t much room for optimism that they’ll charge out of the gates as they figure some things out. I can see it being a bit of a sloppy game similar to matchups past between the two, but United should take all the points and start their new era the right way.